New grant will help startups connect with large businesses.
From incubators to investors, New Orleans currently possesses a strong entrepreneurial infrastructure, leading to a wave of business startups in recent years. Yet if one piece of the picture has been missing, it is a framework for connecting small businesses to larger enterprises, which in many industries is essential to long-term success.
Thanks to a grant from the Surdna Foundation to the New Orleans Business Alliance (NOLABA), that gap is about to be plugged. According to a press release from NOLABA, Surdna has provided $375,000 over three years to assist small businesses — especially minority and women-owned businesses — in “increasing procurement and contracting opportunities with the city’s anchor institutions.”
I recently spoke with NOLABA’s Lynnette White-Colin, who is leading the work funded by Surdna, and the alliance’s Director of Communications, Amy Ferguson.
“Anchor institutions are large employers that are anchored in the city, meaning they are not going anywhere anytime soon,” explained Ferguson. These can be both public and private sector entities; examples include Ochsner, the Sewerage and Water Board and Tulane University.
While the program has many aspects, including training and mentoring, identifying priority needs for small businesses, and general capacity-building support, the overarching focus is on connectivity.
This includes linking small businesses to networks like the Chamber of Commerce, as well as to technical assistance providers and other key resources. However, according to White-Colin, the primary objective is “to make sure that opportunities reach the small business owners, and that those individuals are ready for those opportunities. We are looking first for businesses that have the capacity but need the connection.”
NOLABA is uniquely placed to accomplish this because it is already working closely with many of the larger enterprises in the city, and it will be reaching out to them to see what needs they have in terms of vendors and suppliers. NOLABA will then identify small businesses in their database that can meet these needs.
Another interesting aspect of the program is that NOLABA will be pressing the larger businesses to be active in building the capacity of their contractors and vendors.
“Larger businesses need to see that helping smaller businesses grow is good for the city as a whole,” stated White-Colin, who pointed out that many large construction projects, for example, get awarded to out-of-town businesses because not even the biggest local companies can compete. While providing management training and joint venture opportunities may increase competition for mid-range local projects, increasing the pool of partners for the really big jobs — both locally and throughout the South — can ultimately create more opportunity for all.
White-Colin also noted that the NOLABA program will be focusing on non-tech small businesses. “Women and minority businesses tend more to be service types of businesses,” she said, and in turn, these businesses are often providing what the anchor institutions need most.
With over 20,000 small businesses incorporated in the city, growing their capacity is essential to the overall economic health of New Orleans. “The role of small businesses in our economy is huge,” said White-Colin. “We’re not seeing employment growth in the larger businesses right now, so small business is truly driving the local economy.”
“Any of these companies could blossom into something much bigger,” added Ferguson, who observed that large, Fortune 500-type companies typically don’t move from their city of origin.
While NOLABA will be conducting a variety of outreach programs, including a small business listening tour early next year, New Orleans businesses that are interested in connecting themselves to this new endeavor can contact NOLABA directly via its website, www.nolaba.org. Business owners will find a receptive ear when they reach White-Colin: “We are really excited to plug these businesses into new opportunities!”
Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.